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When $1.15 adds up to a sting, mug shots and overkill

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In their zeal to curb metal thievery, some local police departments may be taking their responsibility to enforce the law to excess.

A case in point Police in Knoxville, Tenn., carried out a "sting" operation several weeks ago in which they ultimately netted two scrap dealers for what might be called bookkeeping crimes.

At Rimmer Brothers Recycling, an undercover officer offered to sell some copper scrap to the scrapyard. The amount offered was so small that it netted him a little more than a dollar. In Knoxville, however, scrapyards are required to take the seller's name and address and mail him a check for the metals five days after the purchase.

In this instance, says owner Bob Rimmer, he decided it was a bit over the top to cut a check for $1.15 and drop it in the mail, so he reached into the till and paid the seller in cash. That's when the police swarmed the yard. Now, Rimmer says, it's fingerprints, mug shots and a trip to court. "They told us we could face jail time and a $2,500 fine," he said.

All for $1.15 worth of copper.

Rimmer's company has been in business in Knoxville for 57 years, paying taxes, providing jobs and recycling scrap that might otherwise be discarded along highways. His company was one of two Knoxville yards nabbed that day for not following the law.

At the other facility, an employee forgot to take the seller's thumbprint as required by state law, and also paid cash for the copper. In all, seven scrapyards were targeted by the sting operation. The police focused only on those yards that offer what the scrap industry calls retail service. In other words, anyone with scrap to sell can walk through the gates and ask someone in the yard to buy what he has.

It should be noted that in the past year, when metals prices were soaring into the stratosphere, thieves were hard at work taking everything copper downspouts, highway guard rails, even brass memorial plates bolted to gravestones. In Russia, a gang of thieves cut an iron bridge apart at night and hauled it away.

That was then.

Now, according to one of the investigators from the East Tennessee Scrap Metal Intelligence Network, metal thefts in the City of Knoxville are down 81 percent compared with a year ago. Lower metals prices probably had a lot to do with that decline, he conceded to a TV news reporter.

Ironically, the same week the East Tennessee Scrap Metal Intelligence team was busting Rimmer and another Knoxville scrap dealer, police and scrap companies in Georgia were working hand-in-hand to nail a thief who had swiped two coils of copper from an electric utility's warehouse. Those coils were worth a bit more than $1.15. In this case, local police credited the Middle Georgia Metal Theft Committee for playing a key role in catching the alleged thief. The committee is an alliance of recyclers, law enforcement officers and other local businesses whose goal is to reduce metal thefts in the area.

While it's true that a theft is a theft whether it's a dime or millions of dollars, it's also true that the enforcement of these new metals theft laws and ordinances has been uneven in more than a few cities.

Most scrap processors have agreed to abide by the various provisions of the laws requiring them to keep records of all sales, take photos of the scrap metals purchased from a peddler, obtain names and addresses and even take thumb prints. Occasionally, some may take a bag of empty soda cans from a peddler and hand over a couple of bucks. In truth, a fair number of the folks that show up at a scrapyard with metals to sell have no address to mail a check to.

The only stumbling block to the new rules has been the demand by city councils and state lawmakers that the scrap dealers keep the acquired metals for a period ranging between 10 and 20 days. Metal prices can plunge sharply in a day or two, not to mention a week or more. Also, holding metals that come in each day for such periods would require many yards to purchase more land and build another warehouse.

Scrap companies have learned not to leave metals like copper sitting outdoors in a roll-off container. It isn't just the unoccupied house, churches and graveyards that have been plundered by thieves. Some are cognizant of the same logic of the quote often attributed to famed bank robber Willie "The Actor" Sutton when asked why he robbed banks. That's were the money is, he replied. The same is true for scrap metals like copper and brass. If thieves can't steal from the power company or a plumber, they'll hit a scrapyard.

Scrap processors have spoken out against such rules, but a U.S. appellate court ruled last year that a tag-and-hold law in Memphis doesn't pose an undue burden on the city's scrap metal processors.

The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI), which joined the federal court battle by filing an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief on the side of the Tennessee Recycling Association, may have said it best. The tag-and-hold clause of the Memphis ordinance amounts to "local regulatory overkill."

Sadly for small scrap dealers, the tag-and-hold clause isn't the only form of overkill they must contend with these days. In more than a few towns and cities, there may be a few enthusiastic cops looking to bust any scrap dealer who forgot to ask for a peddler's thumbprint.


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